For the past several months, Windows Insiders have been treated to a steady drumbeat of change, testing the new features coming in the third major release of Windows 10. Soon, these changes will be made available to all Windows 10 users via the Anniversary Update. And it makes the best version of Windows yet even better.
As a quick recap, you may recall that Microsoft released the initial version of Windows 10, retroactively called Windows 10 version 1507, on July 29, 2015, This was followed by the Fall Update, which bumped Windows 10 to version 1511. And now we have the third release, courtesy of the Anniversary Update, bringing the OS to version 1607.
I’ll examine the new features in the Anniversary Update here in this review, but it’s important to remember that Windows 10 has benefited from other changes over the past year as well: The apps that ship with the OS have been updated in innumerable ways over the past year, too, and of course all Windows 10 users benefit from the more direct feedback mechanisms that Microsoft has built into the system. Microsoft’s description of Windows 10 as “Windows as a Service” is quite accurate: This is a classic desktop OS, sure, but it’s been improving steadily all along.
And according to Microsoft, the Anniversary Update is the most heavily-tested release of Windows yet, with over 25 complete builds of the OS shipped to testers since late 2015. The firm reports that Windows Insiders—those individuals who have elected to test these pre-release builds—have collectively spent over 50,000 years working with Windows 10 and have delivered over 75 million individual pieces of feedback, resulting in over 5,000 improvements to the OS. Not bad for a year of work.
And the results speak for themselves. While there are still a few misses, Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update is a much more visually and functionally cohesive system than the one Microsoft first delivered a year ago. To be fair, anyone who has been testing pre-release builds through the Insider program has probably lost track—as I have, certainly—of all the tiny improvements that have crept into Windows 10 over time. That’s the price of constant iteration.
On that note, let’s look at the changes and improvements coming in this release.
Over 15 years since Microsoft first started flogging tablet PCs and their active pens, Microsoft has finally deeply integrated support for tablet PCs and their active pens into Windows. Put another way, the only major new feature in Windows 10 is one that will benefit and interest only a tiny segment of the user base. If there’s anything weirder in Windows 10 than Windows Ink, I haven’t seen it.
That said, it’s a neat idea, and in keeping with the general direction of Windows 10—where Microsoft finally walked away from the terrible touch-first user experiences of Windows 8 and offered a system that could adapt to a multitude of device form factors and usage scenarios—it achieves a nice balance. That is, it won’t get in your way if you don’t want or need it. But it’s useful functionality for those with pens, or those who are pen-curious. (And you don’t even need a pen to use Windows Ink, as it turns out.)
Windows Ink is essentially a new set of system-level capabilities that integrates the power of the pen more deeply into the OS. In previous Windows releases, Microsoft allowed a pen to work like a mouse when it came to system interaction, and there were a handful of in-box (mostly terrible) and external applications like Microsoft Office that were pen-aware and offered basic handwriting and drawing capabilities. But now, with Windows Ink, compatible PCs—like Microsoft’s Surface products—will respond to the pen more naturally, letting interested users get up and running with native pen experiences more easily. Honestly, the most amazing thing about Windows Ink is that it took Microsoft this long to implement it in Windows.
Windows Ink is mostly just plumbing, so Microsoft also created a new Windows Ink Workspace as the obvious front-end for Windows 10’s new and improved pen-enabled apps and experiences. It’s a flyout panel that appears when you select the new Windows Ink Workspace system icon in the increasingly over-stuffed tray area. Or you can simply press the primary button on your pen for a more seamless experience. (On my Surface Book, I press the top, eraser-like button on the Surface Pen to invoke Windows Ink Workspace.)
Windows Ink Workspace collects all of the pen-enabled experiences—Sticky Notes, and the new Sketchpad and Screen Sketch apps—included with Windows 10 plus those pen-aware apps you’ve recently-accessed, in one place. A tiny ad of sorts at the bottom promotes new pen-enabled apps in the Windows Store, though this app collection is currently about as lackluster as anything else in the store.
The new ink apps aren’t anything special per se, though I really enjoy the hand-controllable ruler in Screen Sketch. And the ability to create ink-based reminders in Sticky Notes is as goofy and hard to find as it is fun. But the quality of these apps isn’t really the point: In Windows 10, finally, Windows Ink is a first-class experience, and by making it obviously available, perhaps Microsoft can drive more usage.
Since it impacts so few users, Windows Ink won’t seem like a big deal to those many users stuck with traditional form factor PCs. But in an era in which Microsoft seems to be walking away from the failed experiments of the past—Media Center and Kinect, for example—it’s a helpful reminder that the firm still backs, and improves on, those technologies which are both useful and unique to Windows. This is a real platform differentiator. Now let’s see if it will ever amount to anything.
Microsoft Edge improvements
With the Anniversary Update, Microsoft Edge—the new web browser no one was asking for—goes from laughable also-ran to a truly first-rate experience that provides, for most people, a viable alternative to mainstream browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
It gets there with the long-awaited extensibility functionality that have made Chrome and Firefox so useful for so long. And while the pickings are currently slim—AdBlock, AdBlock Plus, LastPass, Microsoft Translate and Save To Pocket round out the useful extensions so far—the ability is there and the basics are already covered. Extensions work as one should expect.